The end of an era: Explore the Universe comes to a close

Almanac Weekly’s Night Sky columnist Bob Berman in his observatory in Willow (photo by Philip Kamrass | Albany Times Union)

Almanac Weekly’s Night Sky columnist Bob Berman in his observatory in Willow (photo by Philip Kamrass | Albany Times Union)

Since 1978, some 1,200 local residents have joined me at my home and observatory to explore the universe. It has been quite an adventure. As I now conduct the final series – the first four Fridays of May – I look back on 37 years that unfolded while our knowledge of the universe exploded.

In the beginning the classes had seven meetings, bestowed one credit through Empire State College and had a quiz at the end. Most folks hated that, so I wisely dropped the test around 1980. In 1982 we built Overlook Observatory. What a telescope! You climb a ladder to look through it. With dual-axis motors and research-grade optics, it was and still is a magnificent instrument. I’d sometimes go to the observatory and just sit there, looking at the telescope admiringly.

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In the mid-’80s I started teaching high school science at the Storm King Academy. A decade later I was teaching college Physics at Marymount. But the local Explore the Universe courses kept going. In the spring we’d have separate Tuesday and Thursday groups, with the same choice every autumn. What lovely people I’d meet. I always felt wistful when the series ended and I knew I’d not see most of these people again.

I always had to deal with my mental infirmity. I should have admitted it at the first session. See, numbers stick in my mind. I can rattle off pi to 100 places, or spend five minutes talking about any planet’s orbital eccentricity or inclination. But names and faces are blurry. Taken out of context, a total stranger in the supermarket would say, “Hi, Bob,” and I’d stare blankly. Yet they were in my current class. I heard that some thought I was snobby because I never said hello. No, not snobby – just handicapped.

Many of the area’s dentists, physicians, therapists and artists attended. And celebrities.  The town supervisor; all the judges. Ann and Howard Koch, who wrote the movie Casablanca, and many others who are no longer on this planet. Peter Schickele of PDQ Bach and other fabulous musicians. I’d love to keep name-dropping but I guess it’s obnoxious.

So thank you to all of you over these many years for sharing the universe with me. If you’ve been putting off taking these classes, well…you’ve got this one last chance; it’s now or never. I’m retiring them. I haven’t had a stroke or anything, thank goodness; it’s just that more people are glued to the Internet, and instead of maybe 100 students a year, the demand is now more like 20. I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

Meanwhile, the universe has changed big-time. When the classes started in 1978, there was no hint that the cosmos is infinite. We didn’t know about quarks. No spacecraft had visited Jupiter or Saturn. The terms “dark matter” and “dark energy” lay in the future. So did the visit of Halley’s Comet in 1985. (Were you there in Woodstock’s Andy Lee Field that night when we all explored it together?) And the amazing animated all-night aurora of March 13, 1989, and the stupendous pre-dawn meteor shower of November 18, 2001.

The stuff that astonished me was different back then. Today, quantum phenomena are more mind-bending to me than the vagaries of light-speed, so that’s what I’ve spent more time on since the 1990s.

I’ll still give occasional talks – at Mohonk, on the Walkway over the Hudson, at Louisville’s Ideas Festival; you’re not rid of me. But as for these courses, I just wanted to take a moment to say goodbye.

 

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